“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”
— Paul Theroux
If everything went according to plan, our fourth day, Monday, October 15, had the potential to be the most unique and exciting of the entire trip. For one thing, we were attending the special-ticket “Mickey’s Halloween Party” at Disneyland with everyone that evening. But more than that – and this was the really big news for us – our already-sizable company would swell by another eight people. The Duffins were coming.
The Duffins had never visited Disneyland as a family. Joel, the dad, was last there in 1992, which was the year before Mickey’s Toontown opened, for Disney history/trivia fans. Julianne, the mom (and Amy’s sister), had not been since 1988, which was the summer before Splash Mountain debuted. They had met, married, finished school, had kids, worked, played, went to piano lessons and soccer games, served their communities, and lived full lives, but neither had since set foot in The Happiest Place on Earth.
Even as big fans of Disney parks, we understood why. Amy and I often discussed how much we would enjoy visiting the Disneyland Resort with either of her sisters and their families, but we knew it was a demanding prospect. All desire to visit aside, unless a person has buckets of money, taking a group of any size on that particular vacation falls somewhere between impractical and impossible. Related: again, the Duffins are eight people.
So, in late 2011, when Julianne mentioned that they were considering a trip to Disneyland that next year, we both briefly lost our minds.
Amy and I had already been considering a 2012 trip, and once Julianne indicated they were looking as well, we managed to invite/bully our way into their fun. It was shady and devious, and we both felt a few twinges of remorse, but we were not about to miss an opportunity we had imagined many times in the past.
The Duffins had spent Sunday night in Las Vegas and were, as of Monday morning, headed toward Anaheim. Along with Julianne and Joel, the family consisted of: Jakob, 17; Meghan, 15; Brennan, 13; Seth, 10; Michael, 7; and Sarah, 5. Disneyland had changed enough in the past two decades that it was, by any account, a very different experience from the last time either Julianne or Joel had been there. For all intents and purposes, the entire clan would be seeing the park for the first time.
Our schedule for the day was coordinated to the minute. After taking a long morning to rest up from the previous late nights, we were going to stroll over to Disney California Adventure for lunch and a few rides while waiting for word that the Duffins were closing in. At a precise point (by careful calculation, they would call when passing our first night stop in Victorville) we were going to leave the park and head to a nearby grocery store. We would then rendezvous back at the hotel as our party was arriving, with just enough time for them to drop off their bags and head back to Disneyland for early entry to Mickey’s Halloween Party.
The slow morning was pleasant, but we both felt the inexorable drumbeat of the resort, and soon enough we were powering across the street. We checked in at the gates of DCA and stepped onto Buena Vista Street, each doing a sort of full-body exhale as we slowed to our regular stroll. The crowds – what we had seen of them – were as expected for a Monday at noon, which is to say the park was quiet when compared to a typical weekend, but busy when compared to a typical weekday. It was also the fewest crowds we had seen so far that vacation.
We turned down Route 66 into Cars Land and through Fillmore’s Taste-In, where a path through the side dropped us adjacent to the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop. It was the sort of detour that did not save a single step or avoid any sort of crowd, but was taken just for the scenery. I do the whole “road not taken” thing quite often; veering down a less traveled path any time the mood strikes me. As a younger couple, this was an ongoing source of irritation for Amy, who likes to have the flight plan filed beforehand. Now, we understand each other a bit better, and I tend to keep to the established paths when I am with her.
[Not always, though. I could not resist a couple of byways during a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park (our other “favorite destination”), and was treated to a stretch of unhappy silence each time. In her defense: a thirty-second conversation each time would have promoted a little more marital bliss.]
We walked down Pacific Wharf and into the restaurant square, which was buzzing with people. Most of the shaded seating was occupied, and we did not wish to sit in the blazing, unseasonable heat, so we divided forces. Amy went into the Pacific Wharf Café to order while I set out to find an open table. Before long we were settled in the far west of the seating area, comfortable in the shade.
Pacific Wharf Café serves sandwiches, salads, and soups featuring sourdough bread from the in-park Boudin Bakery. We both know what we want without looking at a menu: Amy cycles between the Salinas Turkey Sandwich and the Chinese Chicken Salad, and I eat nothing but the Santa Rosa Corn Chowder. The soup is a smallish portion, which is one of the few places I have found that to be the case at DCA, but the bread bowl makes up the difference.
We had just taken our first major bite when Amy’s phone rang, and her sister was calling, excited that they were rocketing past Victorville. This was great news, of course, although it conflicted with our tidy scheme. The two of us convened a brief emergency planning session and determined that perhaps we had scheduled too much time anyway. We pushed our departure to the store back twenty minutes, surprisingly content, considering that at the first major signpost our schedule was already starting to veer off the rails.
Several rounds of “oh man” and “this is so good” later, we walked back to the hotel and our Subaru. The quick grocery run was to restock our breakfast items and pick up a few refrigerated goods for the Duffins. It was a calculated risk to the prime parking spot (to say nothing of our time in the park), but we had eaten airplane peanuts and English toffee for breakfast that morning, so it was probably necessary.
Von’s Market in Anaheim was precisely 2.1 miles away, according to my smartphone. We trotted inside, scanning the aisle indicators to get an idea where to start. I liked it already. I enjoy going in what might be called a “regular” grocery store while on vacation, meaning one that does not make their business on tourists. I think it stems from the same craving people have for authentic experiences when they travel. Perhaps not all of our destinations are as completely engineered as a Disney theme park (I have a lot of positive associations with Disneyland, but “authentic” is not one of them), but almost every place we go is designed — in some way — for tourists.
So, I found myself happy to walk around a run-of-the-mill grocery store, smiling like an idiot at racks of canned soup and refrigerator cases full of dairy products. It was easy to picture us doing our weekly shopping in that pleasant place. Our house might be just down the road, so close to Disneyland! As we approached the produce I turned to Amy and said: “Do you know what…?” She replied, in the perfect blend of amusement and accommodation that is the hallmark of the long-term partner: “You could live here?”
My brain liquefied and began dribbling out of my ears. “Have I said that before?”
She laughed, I can only imagine at my expression of total bafflement in the verification of her clairvoyance. “You say that every time we go somewhere like this.”
It was the perfect thing to say, and caused me to look around with immediate sobriety at our pedestrian surroundings. All I could manage was: “Uh, sorry?” We finished our shopping with no further foot-dragging or flights of fancy, which was not Amy’s intended purpose, but I think she was pleased with the outcome, anyway.
The Duffins were checking in at the Anaheim Desert Inn when we got back to the hotel. Our parking spot had been claimed, but, in another stroke of continuing luck, an alternative was open nearby. We humped our groceries up to the room and congratulated ourselves: the plan had succeeded so far.
In Paul Theroux’s astounding book Dark Star Safari, he recounts his experiences in traveling overland from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa, through the eastern African continent. It was a trip that covered around 7,000 miles and took a little under six months. Although he interacts with a lot of notable characters in the course of the book, he travels alone.
I have an imaginary version of myself where I am a dashing global explorer/writer – equal parts Indiana Jones and H. Rider Haggard – comfortable in almost any environment, and experienced in almost any culture. This version of my adventures begin by giving Amy a rugged-yet-tender squeeze, a promise to check in as often as I can, and a spirited wave out the door of my Lamborghini as she clutches the drapes in our tasteful country manor home. She knows I will return – I always do, even if it is often by the skin of my teeth. I have taken her on a couple of these imaginary expeditions, but that version of Amy is forever turning her ankle, or being captured by criminal cabals, or criticizing my driving, so now she stays safe at home with our two intelligent and well-behaved imaginary children.
This version of me exists to travel to places that strike my imagination, but where we will almost certainly never go. Just like Theroux, Rugged Nate has no problem flying solo on gritty adventures. Rugged Nate is decisive and action-packed.
I mention this because Actual Nate is a different animal from Rugged Nate. Actual Nate once had an opportunity to spend an entire day in Disneyland by himself, doing whatever he wants, but only made it to early afternoon before heading back to the hotel to nap and watch a college football game. Actual Nate was not having as much fun as he had envisioned, so he left. Actual Amy arrived with his parents the next day, gave Actual Nate a rugged-yet-tender squeeze, and all was, once again, right with the world.
The lesson: aside from being disappointed in my own performance, I realized that although I may be able to function on my own, I much prefer sharing my adventures with loved ones. Actual Nate has become a “we” with Actual Amy, and whatever it may say about my domestication, I would not have it any other way.
We joined the Duffins in their family-sized double room (a great feature of the Anaheim Desert Inn), just a dozen doors down from ours. They had already moved in their luggage and boxes of food, and were sorting out bed assignments. A very satisfying air of accomplishment hung over us as the planning and waiting of the past year was about to come to fruition. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I am still not sure who was more excited: the Duffins for their first visit, or Amy and I to be with them.
We used our Mickey’s Halloween Party passes at the Disneyland gates, and our group began pooling in the entry plaza under the benevolent gaze of Flower Bed Mickey. About the time Jakob joined us and happened to be standing next to me, a young woman walked past in an attention-grabbing get-up. Without knowing for sure, I imagine the name on the costume packaging was something like: “Naughty Schoolgirl.” The skirt of the outfit, just to indicate a single detail, was so short that every part of her lower body that could fairly be called legs was visible. Jake (and me, for that matter – and everyone in the vicinity) did one of those comical, needle-scratching-off-the-record pauses where all conversation grinds to a halt.
We looked at each other, shared an awkward, stricken laugh, and then tried to pick up the pieces of our conversation while casting our eyes for a less goggling view. Even in that small area, Naughty Schoolgirl had some competition for attention. Without much effort (that I remember; my head might have been whirling around like a gyroscope) I spotted: Naughty Superhero, Naughty Pixie, Naughty Little Bo Peep, and Naughty Train Conductor – which, honestly, I did not know was even a thing.
Amy and I were suddenly bursting with explanations and apologies: Disney only allows kids to wear costumes into the park, except for the Halloween party, when the adults can dress up, too. This is not typical of what people wear for a day of fun at Disneyland. Don’t let this ruin your impression of the park. And so on. It occurred to me, too late, that Mickey’s Halloween Party was probably not the best environment for introducing new people to a typical Disneyland experience, especially new people with kids that grew up in a rural, conservative valley in northern Utah.
We probably went a bit overboard with the assurances – the Duffins still live in the 21st Century, after all. At the time, though, and until it became too dark to see everyone, it was a subject of conversation. “I can’t believe how many people are wearing nightclub Halloween costumes,” I said to someone from our other group, when we ran into them later. He nodded at the crowd and replied, smirking: “There are more Woodys here than just the ones in costume.”
Disney has a complicated relationship with sex in their entertainment. A subtle acknowledgment of sexuality has been present since their very first feature movies, from the awkward, unaddressed questions in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the topless “centaurettes” in Fantasia. It was never overt, merely a nod to sexuality being a universal human interest. Donald Duck spends long stretches of The Three Caballeros chasing after the women of Central and South America. Well, what did we expect would happen when he “caught” them?
Even though American culture has lost any nuance when it comes to sexuality, Disney still tries to maintain a healthy dimension of it in their family movies. The omnipresent Disney Princesses are all conventionally attractive young women and their respective princes are handsome young men (or they are by the end of the movies), even if the relationships portrayed are always traditional. They are “family” movies, after all, and not “children’s” entertainment: sex being a rather critical component of creating families.
The Disney theme parks are not quite so clear on their boundaries, and one finds mixed messages abounding. Merida from Brave was recently redesigned with an eye to adding her to the roster of the Disney Princesses. Taken in a vacuum, the styling alterations were relatively minor and matched what they were already doing with the Merida character meeting guests in the park. However, a short-but-powerful backlash ultimately let to Disney taking down the “revamped” image from their website. Most fans did not want to see Merida in this new, more “adult” light.
In that vein, the depiction of Tinkerbell has been sexualized to the point where a once-minor character is now one of the most popular in merchandise. Or Jessica Rabbit, who is arguably more popular than her husband Roger, in large part because she was “drawn bad.” Disney has tried to restore a little balance to Tinkerbell with animated movies and stuffed animals, but the sometimes-suggestive depiction remains in the park. As long as both versions continue to move merchandise, Disney will not choose between a children’s version and an adult version of Tink. The same thing may happen with Merida, as well; without question, we have not seen the last of the redesign.
Which begins to touch on a larger conversation about the evolving definition of a family in the 21st century, and what that might look like through a Disney kaleidoscope. One indication may be the endurance of Gay Days, the unofficial event that Disney does not outwardly endorse but does offer tacit support. Amy and I were in Disneyland for Gay Days in 2011 and found it to be not much more than a day of families in red shirts walking around the park. In other words, it was like any other day, it just happened to be one where you were more likely to see two men or two women walking around holding hands. It was basic family entertainment, and it was not sexualized in the way the Halloween party was, at least as far as I saw.
At last, we passed through the berm tunnel and emerged into the grand introduction of Main Street, USA. Our thought was to lead the entire group down Main Street to the Hub, where we could introduce the “Partners” statue as a good central meeting area. As we passed by Holly Jolly Bakery we spotted, by mind-stretching coincidence, some mutual friends who were also down from Northern Utah for Mickey’s Halloween Party. We stopped for a few minutes to compare notes.
For the first time (and, it’s possible, the only time), our full traveling retinue of 25 was in a single park. We decided that even our sub-group of 10 was a bit too ponderous to manage, so we divided forces. Amy and Julianne took Sarah, the youngest, to look at the sights and collect candy at the party’s Trick-or-Treat stations. Joel went with Seth and Michael to explore. I asked if Jakob, Meghan, and Brennan – the older Duffin children – would like to ride some of the faster attractions, and volunteered to be their guide.
We headed straight to Tomorrowland, where crowds were starting to drift toward the exits and the lines were short. We went on Space Mountain for their very first ride.
With the crowds still very light, we walked on some of the bigger rides after that, going from Space Mountain to Buzz Lightyear Star Command, then to Star Tours, and then to the Matterhorn Bobsleds. As we were exiting the Matterhorn, Jakob said, with pitch-perfect insouciance: “Hey, what about Pirates of the Caribbean, is that any good?”
I should clarify: Jakob, Meghan, and Brennan are not – in any way – the insolent, vocal fry-heavy teens that zone out behind earbuds and roll their eyes as a native expression. They are great kids, even if it feels a little patronizing to call them “kids.” So when Jakob threw out a suggestion, it was because he had been considering it for a while, but was too polite to demand or insist. I felt very foolish: not only had I been strutting around and calling the shots without really asking for their opinions, but Pirates of the Caribbean would have been equally acceptable for our first ride. We headed at once for New Orleans Square.
Pirates of the Caribbean was very well received, even in the wake of the thrill rides we had already experienced. The sun had set, the distinct party lighting and decorations were deployed, and the special ticket crowd was out now in full force. With half-an-hour before we were set to rendezvous with the rest of the Duffins for dinner, I suggested (being certain this time that it was just a suggestion) we ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It was a perfect conclusion to one of my favorite stretches of the entire trip.
We met at the Stage Door Café in Frontierland for dinner, which is a Quick Service spot adjacent to – and themed with – the Golden Horseshoe. The Stage Door Café also shares an extensive patio with the River Belle Terrace that provides a large, busy outdoor seating area along the Rivers of America. Our goal was to introduce the Duffin family to one of the park’s transcendent, culinary delights: the hand-dipped corn dog.
It was dark when we sat down to eat – and with lower nighttime lighting than usual for the Halloween party – so I could not see the reactions of the Duffins to the corn dogs (and chicken fingers for the less adventurous). Not that I was paying much attention, as I was a little too involved in my own dining experience. After we finished, though, Amy threw out the customary: “whadjathink?” A few beats of awkward silence followed, until Julianne charitably suggested that hers may have been burned, as it had not been very good. In my memory, we both shrugged good-naturedly and said: “well, to each their own.” But in reality, I think we recoiled with untoward shock. It remains a possibility that hers was overdone, but my theory is that decades of eating frozen and reheated Foster Farms blorbs had destroyed her palate. But, you know, to each their own.
The touring groups reorganized for the evening, with Jakob, Meghan, and Brennan all switching to spend time with either their mom or their dad (a good choice on their part). However, the restart was so quick and efficient that I walked a tray of trash over to a handy garbage can and literally turned around to find myself alone on the patio of the Stage Door Café. Amused, I grabbed my phone to call Amy and find out where they were heading, when I was struck with an intriguing idea. No one was expecting me. I could undertake the rest of the evening solo. I slipped my phone back into my pocket.
It was a chance at redemption for my poor performance from years ago. I set off alone, on my own schedule, going wherever my feet took me. My jaw was a hard line – I was certainly swaggering, and I may have even been squinting into the non-existent sun.
The park was quite crowded, but everyone was there for the party events, so the rides had very short lines. I walked on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad two more times in a row and took a first trip through Haunted Mansion Holiday. The party loosened some inhibitions among the other guests, as well: I heard rumors that some crazies almost got ejected Disneyland for bellowing and leaning out of the train while it was moving. It would seem the Disney atmosphere was not as no-limits as they had imagined.
On a swing through Main Street, USA, I watched parts of the special event parade and caught the fireworks (two things I don’t normally enjoy, but nobody tells Rugged Nate what to do). I even decided to visit a few Trick-or-Treat stations like the gritty, solo traveler I was imagining myself to be, and collected about five pounds of candy in 45 minutes. Disney puts a lot of attention and quality into events like this (with the possible exception of the parade, which was dross). The décor was amazing, and the extras – like the “Dapper Dans,” in spooky makeup and lighting, singing Halloween songs from a raft on the Rivers of America – were great.
It is hard to quantify whether anyone gets $40-$60+ dollars worth of entertainment for the cost of entrance to any of the Disney Resort hard ticket parties. But, for us, it was a great memory and a successful introduction to the park for the Duffins, as we had hoped. Well, all except for the corn dogs.